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Pathway to the future

By Katie Bausler, 
Community Relations Director

 "I really want to go into medicine and I want to pursue a career as a doctor later in life," declares Juneau-Douglas High School senior Portia Carney. So she jumped at the chance to enroll in the Introduction to Health Sciences class, in which high school students job-shadow community health care professionals at facilities including Wild Flower Court, Rainforest Pediatrics and Bartlett Regional Hospital. 

The course description says, "Students explore a variety of health-related careers, including roles and responsibilities of health care workers, medical terminology, legal and ethical issues, personal safety, infection control, and problem solving."

On the job

For her last day of shadowing, Portia shows up at the Human Resources desk at 1 p.m. sharp. "If they're late they're out of luck," says HR technician Michelle Darrah. "We want them to have a real-world experience." After arriving, students dress in hospital-assigned scrubs and report to the department they are job-shadowing that day.

We catch up with Portia at the nurses' station at Bartlett Beginnings, waiting for admission to a birthing room where a family has just met their new child. "I just want to see a little baby, seeing the new life that's been brought into the world," says Portia. 

Heidi Denton, RN, emerges from the room. "We're ready for you now," she tells Portia. Minutes before, Juneau family Christal and Ben Higdon welcomed their second daughter, Ophelia. In a plastic bag on a rolling cart is the placenta and umbilical cord. Heidi, and fellow long-time Bartlett Beginnings nurse Kasia Spengler, RN, ask Portia if she'd like to see it. Of course she does. The trio don gloves and dump the mass into a plastic container.

"I got to feel it. One layer is like spongy, and another layer is like this thin membrane," says Portia. "And then they showed me the umbilical cord and it was just a lot different from what I'd ever imagined." 

Next, it was time to measure and weigh Ophelia. "She was a big healthy baby," Portia says. "It was just a really cool experience to see how the whole afterwards process works." 

Nurturing health care careers

As it turns out, Heidi's health care career began right here at Bartlett Beginnings. Nineteen years ago she was a junior in high school considering a career as a nurse. "I loved it," she states. "I job-shadowed with all these people, some of whom I now work with." The experience solidified Heidi's decision to study nursing in college and become a registered nurse.

Heidi is not alone. "This is how we grow our own workforce, right here in our hometown," says Carin Smolin, the Career and Technical Education Coordinator for the Juneau School District.

"We do not have formal data or information on how many students go on to further health sciences training and postsecondary education," says Carin. "But we are aware of many students who value these courses and experiences and return to our community as postsecondary graduates employed by local health care organizations like Bartlett."

Current students can earn dual high school science credit and university credit toward health sciences degree programs through the University of Alaska Southeast. Instructor Henry Hopkins says about half the students in the semester-long job-shadowing elective choose to earn dual credit. 

Shared experiences

During class time back at Juneau-Douglas High School, Portia and her fellow students share their experiences.  Kayla Kohlhase spent time in the "super sterile" pharmacy department. Before entering, she had to scrub up to her elbows, put on gloves, have the gloves sprayed with alcohol and don a lab coat. "They took us into the sterile room and they showed us how to make IV bags and prepare the chemotherapy medicines," she recalls, wide-eyed.

Students Linnea Lentfer and Katie McKenna witnessed a birth. 

"You could just feel the intensity and the urgency," they recall. "I think just the collaboration in the room between the nurses and the doctor and the patient was really cool," says Katie. "It was so supportive and, even in a clinical environment, it was really about the human experience, and seeing that was fascinating and intriguing for me." 

Katie also spent an hour with a pediatrician. "Rainforest Pediatrics was my favorite. I like little kids, so it was nice to see them." She witnessed a four-day checkup for a newborn baby. She is interested in family medicine and delivering babies.

Linnea was able to connect some of her high school education with a job-shadow in the lab, where clinical scientists drew her blood and then quizzed her on "antibodies versus B antigens and all this stuff," she says. "It was fun for me to try and remember what I've learned in my biology classes and then apply it into this real-life situation and find out my blood type." 

She also spent time shadowing a nurse at Wild Flower Court, the assisted living facility adjacent to the hospital.  "A lot of her job is watching how dementia affects the patients," says Linnea. "It was really hard to see. I don't know if I could personally deal emotionally with caring for a patient who, you don't know whether they're there or how they feel or what their life is like."

Portia, meanwhile, not only observed health care in action in the obstetrics department, but also got a chance to observe a laparoscopic surgery. "It was a woman who was getting her fallopian tubes out, and she was getting an ablation," Portia says. "It was really amazing to see how a surgeon is actually helping this patient. It was surreal."

A step along the way

For Portia, Introduction to Health Sciences was a mission accomplished.  "I just wanted to experience medicine before I actually go into medicine," she says. "I've definitely learned a lot about all of the different positions that are in the hospital." 
The course is part of the school district's Career Pathways program. Data from the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development shows a 97% graduation rate for students who participate in Juneau School District's Career and Technical Education pathways and a high rate of enrollment (80%) in postsecondary education.

Portia looks forward to starting pre-medical studies at Western Washington University in Bellingham this fall.

Interested in job-shadowing?

The Introduction to Health Sciences class gives students hands-on experience in the health care field. To learn more, please email Carin Smolin at

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